Despite Golde’s reassurance that the battle was basically over when she’d been impaled, by the time we reached the hill overlooking the battle, it was still going strong.
Ingrid gestured at the scrum of people on the plain. “’Basically over’?”
Golde looked sheepish. “Maybe they brought reinforcements?” She didn’t sound very convinced of herself.
Ingrid wasn’t convinced either. She gave Golde a hard stare and sat pointedly in the snow on the top of the hill to wait. Golde’s suggestions that Ingrid herself should go down and ‘help’ the locals overthrow the imperialists by taking a kill or two for herself “…so my death means something!” was met with a cold, hard stare.
“Nothing means anything and I’m not getting involved in other people’s fights,” Ingrid told her flatly, and waited until the locals had declared victory before letting Golde go find her body amongst the many, many fallen. I followed because I had to—the glowing chains pulled at my wrists when I allowed myself to fall too far back—and because a small part of me was perhaps a little curious about this whole blasphemous ‘necromancer’ thing.
When we got closer to the field, Ingrid hurriedly pulled her hood up. I had been so busy puzzling over that, I almost missed noticing something very bizarre begin to happen.
As we stepped amongst the dead, the air shimmered and the bodies… duplicated. There were twice the casualties. Most of them were lying on the ground in their bodies, looking dazed. Some of them were standing awkwardly, scratching their heads, and looking around them like they weren’t sure what was going on. And some of them—the ones who were beginning to understand—were panicking, desperately trying to talk to the people collecting the bodies, pleading with the living to hear them.
I watched, a knot forming where my stomach would have been. I knew that distress, and I knew it well: after all, how many long nights had I spent trying in vain to touch Jerrik and hug my little girls? That the living couldn’t see or hear us was a hard pill to swallow, and watching these new ghosts struggling with it made me ache for them.
The living on the field were of course oblivious to the ghosts, and they showed little interest in Ingrid, too. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the dead.
They didn’t pay her much attention at first, because she was clearly being very careful to keep her hood up and not to make eye-contact with them as we crossed the field. It wasn’t until we were in the thick of it that Ingrid made a crucial mistake. Golde pointed towards her body and declared, “There I am!” and Ingrid automatically stopped walking and looked over to where she was pointing.
A nearby ghost saw the exchange, gasped, and shouted, “She can see us! She can—!” Recognition dawned on him as he caught sight of her face inside the upturned hood. “Heavens above! It’s her! It’s Ingrid of the Damned!”
There was a pause as dozens of ghosts stopped what they were doing and looked up towards us. Ingrid froze in place, stiff as a board. For a moment the battlefield fell silent except for the sobbing of mourners.
Under her breath, Ingrid very calmly said, “Shit.”
The one who’d shouted about us broke the silence first. He stood, running towards us at full pelt. “Please! I need you to tell my wife where I’ve hidden our money!”
Others saw him, looked at us, and followed suite. One by one, ghosts rose to their feet and surged at us. The air was full of cries and wails and shouting; requests, pleas, directions, they all merged together in a cacophony of loud suffering, a rolling tide of overlapping, shimmering, shouting people running at us, none of them knew what to expect or what we could do but they were all desperate to not be the person who missed out on being heard, and as they arrived at Ingrid, they took handfuls of her clothes, clutching at her, pulling at her, falling at her feet and begging and wailing and shouting and crying—
“ENOUGH!” Ingrid’s voice split the sky like bolt of lightning as she threw back her hood and raised her hand into the air. The sound wasn’t… from her mouth. Well, it came from her mouth, but it erupted from her being like the rumbling of approaching thunder, quaking the ground and causing pressure in the air. It built and built and built over the course of a few seconds like a rising storm and then, as she threw her hand downward, it struck the ground at her feet like a thunderbolt.
The resulting explosion collected me; one minute I was standing in the snow and the next I was tumbling head over heels across it, thrown away from her. I only stopped when the chain at my wrists pulled—I landed on my side in the snow as other ethereal bodies sailed past me into the distance.
If I’d been alive, I imagine I would have been grievously injured. I wasn’t, so I sat up and looked about me, stunned.
The other ghosts had been thrown away from her, too—most had been thrown so far that I’d lost sight of them. The ones who’d hadn’t been looked just as confused as I. Some of them were lying motionless in the snow as if they believed they’d been injured.
None of the living seemed to have noticed a thing, however, not even how odd Ingrid must have looked. Glancing self-consciously about her anyway, Ingrid pulled up her hood again. The air around her was still crackling. “Stay away from me!” she warned the residual ghosts in that thunderous voice again, and then, when it was clear they planned to do exactly that, the air about her settled. Releasing a long, weary breath, she continued on through the field of fallen soldiers towards Golde’s corpse.
Golde herself shot up like a cork in water from where she’d fallen, and bounded over to meet Ingrid. Dragged by my chains, I stumbled up to follow them.
When I arrived, they were both considering Golde’s impaled body. I joined them, thinking she did look as if she’d had quite the heroic death: her long hair and many braids fanned out around her in the snow, and she was holding the lance firmly in her torso with frozen fingers. She appeared comfortable, even perhaps a little regal in death, and was lying much the way corpses were presented during wakes. I wondered if she’d died in that position deliberately.
Suggesting Ingrid had similar thoughts on the matter, she fixed Golde with a very fed up expression. “Really?” before taking the lance and struggling to pull it free. When she finally managed to, it shimmered and dissolved from Golde’s ghost, as well. “At least it was a clean death this time,” Ingrid reluctantly conceded, tossing the lance aside and gesturing at the corpse. “Let’s get this over and done with.” With practiced ease, Golde lay down in her body.
The resurrection itself—could I call it that?—was such an anticlimax. In our Church, miracles were only granted after great formality. Ingrid didn’t even speak holy words, or invoke the name of God, or do anything which might have granted her the power she obviously had. She just reached a tired hand towards Golde’s body as if she was helping a friend who had stumbled. “Rise!” she commanded, adding less ceremoniously, “You big, stupid oaf.”
When Golde took her hand, her corpse came with it. She stood back to full height again, no longer shimmering. Celebrating her return to solid form, she posed and flexed.
There was a gasp from nearby. One of the warriors who’d been tending to a fallen comrade was watching us with her jaw hanging open. “You resurrected her!”
The bored voice coming from Ingrid’s hood suggested this might be a frequent occurrence for her. “Does she look alive to you?”
“Yeah!” Golde chimed in. “See?” she pulled aside her torn and bloodied leather tunic to show the woman a big, gaping hole in her middle.
It was simply horrific; I can’t imagine how that poor woman felt to see it. If I’d had a stomach myself, I would have been sick to it at the sight of that wound. In the freezing weather, the hole had been perfectly preserved and I could see through broken bones to internal organs, and past them to snow on the other side. No one with that sort of wound could possibly be alive and walking around. There were other, much smaller clues as well: blue lips, cloudy eyes. Her hair was matted with snow and her cold skin had icicles forming on it. She was still dead.
Ingrid pulled Golde’s tunic closed. “Show’s over,” she said to the woman, and grabbed Golde’s arm. “Get your sword and let’s be out of here before I get mauled by the newly dead again.”
Dragged by the chains, I could only glance back at the horrified woman standing like a statue in the snow. Her hand covered her mouth, and over her fingers her eyes were wide, aghast.
My two guides had already forgotten her. “They weren’t really mauling you!” Golde said about the dead as we were towed away from the carnage. “They just want help! And why shouldn’t we help them? They were brave and heroic warriors who died repelling the imperialist invasion! Surely Lilly wouldn’t mind if we brought a few of them with us to the cathedral.”
Ingrid made a disgusted noise “Lilly definitely wouldn’t mind,” she agreed, but just as Golde was beginning to smile, she cut her off. “The answer is still no.”
To make perfectly sure Golde didn’t acquire any dead strays, Ingrid didn’t release her until she’d delivered us back at the campsite. I wanted to ask more about this ‘Lilly’ and the cathedral—especially since I recalled them mentioning her before—but Ingrid was in a mood again and stomping about in the snow. “’Ingrid of the Damned’ indeed,” she muttered. “More like ‘Eternally Damned Ingrid’.”
“Oh, hush,” Golde said, taking a handful of fresh snow and trying to use it to scour the blood from her body and clothes. “If we have to go south for this small southern lady again, we’d be staying at the cathedral anyway.”
Ingrid darkened. “I’d rather sleep in the pouring rain.”
Golde laughed openly at that. “You like Lilly,” she reminded Ingrid, who made a gagging noise in response. Golde continued as if she hadn’t. “And I like her, too. She’s got big sad eyes like a little puppy and a beautiful face that’s a pleasure to look upon.”
Ingrid looked upon Golde like she was on the verge of being ill. “Don’t you dare tell her that.”
“Why not?” Golde asked, and then paused for a moment, presenting her scrubbed face to Ingrid. “Did I get it all?”
Ingrid touched the corner of her own mouth. “You still have some blood around here,” she said before answering Golde’s question. “Because she’s already insufferable.”
“Who’s Lilly?” I wondered aloud as Golde filled her mouth with snow to clean it. “Is she a priestess at this cathedral?”
Ingrid twisted about specifically to give me a quizzical look. “Of the Goddess Eostre,” she said. “How did you know?”
“You spoke of her before.”
Ingrid’s brow lifted, but only marginally. “Oh.”
Golde looked entertained by Ingrid’s description of her. “Come, now, my love! Aren’t you going to tell her?” she asked with a grin, elbowing her much smaller friend. It was obviously supposed to be gentle, but she nearly knocked Ingrid into the snow.
Growling, Ingrid righted herself and shoved Golde with all her strength. It did nothing at all, and that made Ingrid even angrier than she’d been a moment before. “Enough about fucking Lilly!” she declared, throwing her hands to the sky. “Get moving or I’ll leave you here!”
I didn’t get to find out what Golde had wanted Ingrid to tell me, though, because Ingrid bossed Golde around until they were both on their shaggy horses and heading southward.
Despite being chained to Ingrid, Ingrid wouldn’t have me ride with her. Golde graciously offered to transport me instead, and even shifted backward into her saddle to accommodate me in a way that looked very uncomfortable.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked her as I settled in front of her and she slung a solid arm around my waist.
Golde snorted. “You can see the sky through a hole in my middle,” she reminded me, and bid her horse to follow Ingrid’s.
That was a somewhat troubling thought: how little the wound in Golde’s middle appeared to bother her. Aside from her pallor and her cloudy eyes, she seemed very much alive and it was sobering to remember that she was not. Her skin felt cold but soft, and the muscles moved under it just as they did before she’d been impaled.
It was those muscles and the feeling of her hard body behind me on a horse as we journeyed that triggered an unexpected but pleasant memory: when Jerrik and I used to go riding together across his family’s fields. We’d been mere babes at the time, barely in our teens. Even then, he’d been strong enough to lift me onto his horse and I’d pretended I needed his help so I could feel his arms around me. I’d often drifted off against him, the steady pace of the horse’s hooves rocking me to sleep.
Ingrid had been watching me for some time. “Tormented spirits don’t usually smile. Why are you so happy? Aren’t you supposed to be burning with rage for whatever your sister did?”
At the mention of my sister, my eyes snapped sharply open.
“What did she do, anyway?” Golde wondered aloud. “Did she kill you?”
If she’d gotten half the chance… “Pneumonia did.”
Golde made a thoughtful noise. “What of her, then? Why are you so tormented by her?”
When I thought on it again, I could feel my edges sear. “As soon as I died she moved in on my husband and my daughters. I wouldn’t put it past her to have been waiting in the wings for a chance.”
Both of their mouths made an ‘oh’ shape. Ingrid’s face was unreadable. “Quite the opportunist, then.”
My mouth was a thin, tight line. “Yes,” I agreed. In every part of my life, that was exactly what she’d been.
Golde considered what I said. “Perhaps she really loves him, though?” she suggested. “Perhaps she’d just been hiding it from you during your life so as not to split your family?” That seemed like rather a lot of detail for a random question.
I didn’t like how specific it was. “No,” I said emphatically, insulted that she’d tried to defend Astrid. Everyone alwaysdefended Astrid! “She was always like this, since we were little girls. She became my mother’s favourite as soon as she was born. She took all my dresses before I was done with them. The more I liked something, the more she wanted it for herself. I sang, so she learnt to sing too and made sure she got the solo in the Church choir and then she insisted on practicing loudly for it every single night as if to rub salt in my wound. She always took everything that was mine and then paraded it around in front of me.”
The two of them listened intently. “So what would you like me to do?” Golde said at last. “How should I teach her a lesson?”
That was a good question. “How would you normally do it?”
Golde gave me a broad, dark smile over my shoulder. “To be perfectly honest, ‘kill them’ is the usual request.”
My expression must have been answer enough, because they both got back to thinking. Ingrid tapped her chin. “We could cut out her tongue,” she casually suggested. “There will be no more singing after that. Perhaps your husband will be less inclined to dally with her, as well.”
That was—I swallowed. “Too brutal,” I decided. “Perhaps you can just scare her?”
Golde pursed her lips and shook her head. “That never works for long. People forgot how scared they were after a few years,” she said sagely. “It’s best to leave them with some sort of permanent reminder of their transgressions. Cutting the hands off thieves, castrating adulterers. That sort of thing.”
I grimaced; it all sounded so barbaric. Then again, what could I really expect from a heathen blasphemer and her self-appointed female ‘wife’? What an odd path God had set me on.
As odd as it was, though, I couldn’t hate it: clearly my prayers had been answered and sister was to finally be punished for a life of tormenting me. Perhaps God’s gift to me was allowing me to be the one to choose how that should take place? In that case, I should think at length about what would be True and Right. It should be something appropriate but not too brutal; something my priest would approve of. What, though?
I’d come to no answers by the time the sun began to set.
We had allegedly travelled due south, but there was no sign of the green rolling hills I’d grown up in when we made camp. We were still in a same cold, barren landscape I’d been in since I arrived, even if the woods were growing thinner and the trees were growing taller. When I put my feet on the ground, the snow was somewhat less thick, too.
Ingrid removed her heavy coat for a moment and examined the snow falling on it, frowning. “It’s too close to freezing for my liking,” she said ominously. “The flakes are melting.”
Golde spotted her without her coat. To my surprise and discomfort, she stopped unpacking, spun right around, and leered. “Perhaps it’s not the weather at all?” she suggested, her eyes glued to Ingrid’s curves. “Perhaps they just saw you without your coat on and couldn’t do anything but melt.” She walked straight up to Ingrid with the same hunger a starving man might show for a big, juicy roast chicken.
Ingrid ignored Golde’s painfully clear advances. “I don’t want to travel with a rotting corpse,” she told Golde bluntly, stepping expertly out of Golde’s attempt to grab her and pointing at the snow. “Please lie down in that and cool yourself off.” I doubted she just meant to avoid the rotting.
Golde didn’t seem to be the sort of woman you could really rebuff for long. Unfazed, she encircled Ingrid’s waist and tackled her. “I will if you join me!”
Helpless against her friend’s much heavier body and greater strength, Ingrid ended up falling into the snow with her.
I averted my eyes, feeling my cheeks burn. What a pair of terrible exhibitionists they were!
Golde let Ingrid escape shortly afterward (it was hard to do much else with Ingrid shouting insults at her and wildly struggling), but she kept trying to lure her into an embrace all evening, anyway. Eventually after they’d laid out their bedrolls and retired for the night, Ingrid stopped smacking Golde’s hands away. I had thought that meant she was asleep, but after I’d sat down in the snow to wait out the night, I heard the unmistakable sound of kissing.
Shocked and appalled, I listened to be sure. Perhaps I was wrong and it was just the drip-drop of melting snow?
While I was trying to work it out, I heard Golde murmur loudly in what was probably her ‘quiet voice’, “I thought you didn’t want to warm me up?” She started to say something else, too, but her voice was muffled presumably by Ingrid’s lips on hers.
If I’d had blood, it would have run cold as the snow I was seated in. They were kissing again! But Golde was dead! They were both women! There couldn’t be more reason for them to not kiss each other!
They didn’t stop just because they should have, though: they did worse. I heard the hiss of quick breath, the rustle of clothes, and the clink of my chains on Ingrid’s wrist as her hands guided Golde’s on her body. There was a lot of clinking.
They were trying to be quiet—at least they granted me that!—but nothing really softened the blow of knowing there were two women love-making across a clearing from me. And not only were they two women, one of them was dead. I already couldn’t really conceive of how they’d manage it even if they were both alive, but the fact Golde was also dead posed so many further questions for me that all I could do was stare at the dark shadow of their bodies against the snow with my eyes wide open. No wonder her title was ‘Ingrid of the Damned’! What a perversion of the natural order of things these two were!
After an eternity that felt longer than my death had so far been, they finished, kissed a little more, and then Ingrid pushed Golde away so she wouldn’t thaw overnight. It was over. I sat and stared at their now-still bodies until the sun rose once more.
If I’d expected Ingrid to be more cheerful in the morning, I was sorely mistaken. Ingrid was, if possible, even more grumpy. I had privately decided that this must be because love-making between women could not possibly be as satisfying and rejuvenating as it was between husband and wife, until Golde noted my expression and said simply, “We’ll reach the cathedral this afternoon,” as if that explained Ingrid’s mood.
Ingrid the Damned may not have been too happy about a visit to a cathedral, but I brightened at the news: cathedrals had always been places of such divine beauty and peace. I had such fond memories of filling them with song.
When we first saw the cathedral on the horizon, however, there was no familiar guiding star atop it. All the cathedrals I’d ever seen had God’s bright guiding star, to navigate lost souls to His holy embrace. Not this one, though. Furthermore, instead of sharp star-point-like peaks, it had a rounded dome that reflected the golden afternoon sun. My heart sank a little; I didn’t even feel like we should call it a proper cathedral.
As we drew closer, I noticed that the snow had quite abruptly begun to melt and little wildflowers peeked out of the mud, dainty and bright. I spotted a herd of deer on the crest of a hill nearby us, there were birds singing in the vast gardens surrounding the dome. Spring had come very early to this one very specific place in the valley, and all the flowers in the garden were beginning to bloom.
Conversely, Ingrid soured. “There’s still time to turn back,” she said glumly as they dismounted and walked through the gates. “Are you sure you wouldn’t simply prefer to stay dead?”
Golde laughed. “Quite sure, my love!” she declared, giving Ingrid a wink. “I’d spend my entire existence trying to avoid being thawed by you.”
Ingrid didn’t look at all bothered by that prospect. “Maybe then I’d finally get some rest.”
Maybe we’d all get some rest, I thought, with flashbacks to what I’d heard last night.
I was busy trying to dismiss those memories when one of the shining doors of the cathedral opened and someone burst through them, hurrying down the stairs with the enthusiasm of a child on their birthday.
She had long fair hair, fair skin, and a crown of vivid spring flowers. Her thin dress—the colour of new leaves—pooled around her bare feet as she made haste towards us, rosy-cheeked and smiling. She was young, and beautiful, and everything a maiden priestess should be, and she ran with the gay abandon of a heart full of joy. “Ingrid!” she shouted to us, that joy bubbling up in her voice. “Ingrid, I’m so happy you came back so soon!”
Ingrid shrank a good two inches, almost recoiling from such a display. “Lilly,” she said flatly in a tone that completely contradicted what she was saying, “my favourite person.”